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Win away from NLCS, Cardinals enter familiar October territory

Kolten Wong's late homer in NLDS Game 3 has the Cardinals in a familiar place, and the Dodgers teetering on the edge of elimination.

ST. LOUIS — In early September, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a rather ... unique, let's say, letter to the editor. The author was concerned about a Hardee's commercial, which ran during Cardinals broadcasts. He deemed it pornographic, and he felt the need to air his grievances as they related to his baseball team of choice.

"I couldn't help but think of Stan Musial, the standard bearer of the Cardinals and a man of impeccable character," the man wrote. "He had to be looking down from heaven with tears in his eyes."

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The utter absurdity of the statement notwithstanding, I couldn't help but recall it on Monday night. If Musial were to cry from heaven, wouldn't it look a lot like rain? And rain it did, as the seventh inning unfolded with the Cardinals and the Dodgers tied at one run apiece in Game 3 of the National League Division Series. It rained as Scott Elbert entered the game in relief of Hyun-Jin Ryu, as Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina led off the inning with a double. It rained as Jon Jay bunted Molina to second, and it rained as Kolten Wong came to the plate.

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And then it stopped. Bat on ball, ball into the Cardinals' bullpen. Wong gave St. Louis the lead, 3-1, and somewhere in that handful of seconds, the rain dissipated. It just plain dried up. Which brings us back to Musial, and maybe it's a little (a lot) ridiculous, but I'd like to think that if The Man is really crying in heaven, it's over the Cardinals, not a hamburger.

In the end, despite a shaky ninth inning from closer Trevor Rosenthal, Wong's blast was all the Cardinals needed, and the 3-1 score held. The fact that St. Louis stranded eight baserunners and squandered a bases-loaded, one-out opportunity in the eighth inning mattered not at all, because the Cardinals, who finished 2014 with the fewest home runs of any team in baseball, only needed those two cracks. They won in a fashion few imagined they would, in a way that looked impossibly improbable on paper, and for one night at least, that was fine.

"We've heard a lot about that this season, about our lack of home runs, so it's nice to see them in big situations like this," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said postgame. "We've got guys who can do it, but we're still not preaching it."

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Throughout the season, Matheny fielded at least some criticism about his de-emphasis of home runs. Hitting with runners in scoring position was the foundation of his philosophy, and while that's all well and good, sometimes a good swat out of the park is all a team needs.

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It was certainly all Wong needed. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2013 World Series, the rookie second baseman emerged from the dugout to pinch run for Allen Craig with his team down two runs. As Carlos Beltran stood at the plate, representing the tying run, Wong advanced a hair too far toward second base and was picked off, ending the game. In the clubhouse that night, the rookie fought back tears as he spoke with reporters, and two games later, his team was done. The misstep haunted Wong throughout the postseason.

"He takes that stuff a little too hard," Matheny said of his second baseman. "That's what we're constantly talking to him about in the clubhouse and out on the field, about letting things go, and I think he's done a nice job of that."

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And if Wong hadn't quite moved past that moment of a year ago, Monday provided the final push. The look on his face was the only proof necessary. Glee. Relief. Release.

"I'm not thankful for [the pickoff]," Wong said, "but I know it made me stronger as a person and as a player. To go through that my first time in the big leagues is definitely tough, but once you go through something like that, everything else is a walk in the park."

A walk in the park, or a trot around the bases — and with the best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw, set to take the mound Tuesday for Los Angeles, the Cardinals will need another dose of swat to keep the series from returning to the West Coast. Monday's inconsistent strike zone, which Don Mattingly described as "very generous," and a ninth-inning, momentum-killing grounds-crew intermission will only drum up more of the Dodgers' Redbirds-related vitriol, which means the Cardinals are far from having the series wrapped up. On Tuesday, starter Shelby Miller will have to look like the player he was for the last month of the season, and the Cardinals will have to hope they can get to the Dodgers' shaky bullpen as quickly as possible.

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On offense, St. Louis has had the weapons all season: Carpenter, Molina, Matt Holliday, Jhonny Peralta, Matt Adams, Wong. They've been there, but they've been, at least at times, dormant. Even so, it's years like this one, when they have to fight their way tooth and nail into the playoffs, that the Cardinals have been at their best. A 105-win season in 2004 didn't yield a World Series title, but 83 wins two years later and 90 in 2011 got them rings.

Perhaps this team's ammunition is best saved for October, and as Carpenter said, he'll trade so-so individual numbers during the regular season for a hot October any day. Hot, too, might even be an understatement. Carpenter has driven in seven runs over the past three games, and he's been such a beast at the plate as to drive Mattingly to compare him on-air to a certain Cardinals great: one Stan Musial.

Upon learning of the opposing manager's words, Carpenter could muster only one word: "Wow."

So on Tuesday, the Cardinals will hope they can keep rising to the occasion when it matters. They'll wager that Miller can go toe-to-toe with Kershaw, that they can continue to induce the kind of October nightmares they've been known for — and reviled for — over the past decade. And the Dodgers? Well, they can only hope to exorcise the ghost of Musial from under the shadow of the Arch.